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All bets are off: Westword writers head up the hill to Black Hawk and Central City

All bets are off: Westword writers head up the hill to Black Hawk and Central City

Wednesday, 6:27 a.m.

Location, location, location.

From the top of the Ameristar, you catch the first glimpse of the sun rising over Denver far below, glinting off the aspen that have already turned to gold on the mountainsides.

It was the discovery of gold a mile up the canyon 151 years ago that led to the founding of Central City and Black Hawk, which early on learned how to make the most of its location. While miners pulled ore out of the hills around Central City, Black Hawk became the milling center that pulled the gold out of that ore, then sent it on its way to Denver and the rest of the world.

But the mines petered out at the turn of the last century, and by the mid-'80s, Black Hawk was just a wide spot in the road at the intersection of Colorado highways 119 and 160, which led to Central City — still a destination town, with the Central City Opera and a big inventory of historic buildings, even if many of them were devoted to selling saltwater taffy and other tourist trappings. Black Hawk had the trailer park and the gas station and the corner market — but true to its tradition, it understood the power of "processing." And so when leaders in Cripple Creek and Central City started talking seriously about bringing in legalized gambling, Black Hawk wanted in on the game. "There had been discussions for years about how to save these old mining towns," remembers David Spellman, whose family has lived in Black Hawk for five generations, from boom to bust and back again. "Technically, they were territorial charter cities that could regulate gaming, although that's not the way the state saw it." Not the way the state saw it in the '80s, that is, though it had looked the other way when gambling helped fund the Gilpin County schools back in the '40s.

So working with then-state senator Sally Hopper, the three towns pushed for an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that would allow limited-stakes gaming — bets of no more than $5 — in historic buildings in the three mountain communities, with the measure billed as a way not just to save the towns, but also to pour money into state coffers that would fund historic preservation across Colorado.

The amendment passed in November 1990, and when gambling started up on October 1, 1991, Central City was the center of the action; Main Street in Black Hawk was still dirt. But while Central City officials closely observed the language of the law — and even imposed a moratorium on development while they studied the impact that gaming would have on historic buildings — Black Hawk took advantage of its location. The wide spot in the road became wider as developers scraped away the hillsides and erased history to build ever-bigger casinos, casinos that were a mile closer to the metro area than the smaller casinos of Central City and captured most of the traffic. And the money.

In the beginning, Spellman had thought he might get into gaming; he and a partner even bought the remains of an old mill at the entrance to Central City from the American Legion, with the thought of developing it into kind of a Hard Rock Cafe/casino. But that dream died with Central City's moratorium — and Spellman realized that his future, and his fortune, lay in his home town. His father had driven down the canyon for forty years to a job; Spellman decided to make Black Hawk his life's work.

He was a city councilman when gambling came to Black Hawk. Back then, the town had a budget of $150,000. Today he's the mayor of Black Hawk, and the town's budget is $25 million. Along the way, the town's leaders have carefully, sometimes ruthlessly, strategized their next moves in the game. "Black Hawk plays chess while everyone else is playing checkers," explains Spellman. Gaming has paid for Black Hawk's new offices in fixed-up historic buildings; it's enabled most of the town's hundred residents to rebuild their homes from the foundation up — and to move those structures that were in the way of progress, like the Lace House, which had become marooned in a casino parking lot, into a re-created Mountain Village. Spellman says the town plans to reopen the Lace House as a museum and put retail shops in the surrounding buildings, much as it helped put a restaurant into Crook's Palace. Gaming has paid for Black Hawk's new roads, a new water treatment plant that can handle 30,000 to 50,000 people a day ("I'm not a mayor of a hundred people," Spellman points out), a reservoir and a new sanitation district. A special Black Hawk tax has poured $850,000 into Gilpin County schools over the past year, and the town has a proposal on the November ballot to tax owners of vacant buildings — most of them casinos that had opened in the first round, then closed when bigger gambling palaces came to town — to inspire them to get the structures back into production.

Spellman isn't just the mayor of what could be the most prosperous town in Colorado; he's also a publisher, having taken over the 148-year-old Weekly Register-Call after William Russell, the longtime owner, passed away last year. With the Rocky Mountain News gone, the Register-Call is now Colorado's oldest continually operating newspaper — one that was full of praise from state lawmakers after their recent trip up to Black Hawk.

They had lunch at the Ameristar, which technically bills itself as Ameristar Casino Resort Spa Black Hawk. The 33-story hotel opened a year ago, with an October 8, 2009, ceremony presided over by Governor Bill Ritter, just three months after Amendment 50 raised the gambling stakes by literally raising the stakes and allowing gaming 24/7. Casino employees boast that it's the tallest building between Denver and Salt Lake City (even when you don't count the 3,000-foot head start that Black Hawk's altitude offers), and had the developers really been thinking, they might have just gone another ten feet higher and created the tallest building between Denver and Vegas.

Hell, Black Hawk might have thrown enough money into the pot just to secure those bragging rights. "Our goal," says Spellman, "is to never see this city shut down."

And with gambling now going 24/7, Black Hawk never does. — Patricia Calhoun


9 a.m.

The streets of Central City are nearly deserted on this overcast morning; the only sign of life is a Bud Light truck unloading cases and kegs. Inside the Doc Holliday Casino, 131 Main Street, the scene is only slightly more lively. Under a grand chandelier hanging from the pressed-copper ceiling and over the speakers pouring out pop songs from throughout the ages — everything from "Footloose" to Whitney Houston's over-the-top "I Will Always Love You" — a mischievous-looking white-haired woman shakes a finger and admonishes, "Don't you steal my machine!" Nearby, a few elderly gentlemen have claimed their own machines and are punching away at buttons. Otherwise, the place is empty.

The original Doc Holliday opened in 1992, across and down the street from its current location. In 2004, as Central City's casino scene shook out, it moved here, into a building that had once housed the legendary Glory Hole bar, then the lavish Glory Hole casino that quickly went bust. Doc Holliday has slot machines and only slot machines, 170 in all, boasting a variety of themes. Miss Kitty. Money Honey. Helen of Troy. 50 Dragons. Tiki Torch. Sea Monkeys. Pharaoh's Fortune. Even Hexbreaker and Kismet, for the superstitious. They're arranged by denomination — penny slots (most of them penny slots), nickel slots and higher — but otherwise, there seems to be no rhyme nor reason to the layout. Sea Monkeys next to the Tiki Torch, with comfortable seats in front of every machine. Ka-ching!

"We buy the slot machines either directly from the manufacturers, or there are a couple of companies in town that sell used machines," manager Bill Sanchez says. "The manufacturers' salesmen come in and say, 'We've got these new games out; they're real popular in this part of the country,' or, 'We've had good success with this.' And they'll sell us a game, or an upgrade, or a different game for an existing box. We can change the computer chips and the glass and make it a whole new game."

So Kismet might have once been Pharaoh's Fortune, and maybe Helen of Troy morphed from Miss Kitty. The players don't know and don't care — as long as you stay away from their machine.

Down the hill, at the Isle of Capri Casino in Black Hawk, the scene is very different. This slick modern building has more contemporary canned music coming out of the loudspeakers, and the elevator floors boast a $100 bill motif. The slot machines here are more organized: Traditional slots are lined up across from more modern games; digital touch-screen slots nestle next to slots with rotating wheels of fortune, and everywhere, the words "triple," "double," "lucky" and "2X pay" assault the eyes. No matter what your interest, there's a slot machine just for you. Twilight Zone. Easter Island. Rome. Camelot. Survivor. Sabertooth. Party in Rio. One called Glitz plays loud snippets of disco house, and the Dean Martin-themed slot talks to passersby in a cool, crooning voice. There are 1,300 slot machines in all, occupying well over half of the casino's gaming floor.

There are no clocks on the wall to track time, and the shades are pulled against even the overcast sky outside. A man in an orange baseball cap sits before the two slot machines he's staked out, pushing buttons efficiently and smoothly. He could do this all day. Maybe he will. — Amber Taufen


11 a.m.

On the first Wednesday of every month, Tommy Donahue and a group of his friends climb aboard a bus bound for Black Hawk. The trip is a pleasant distraction for the 85-year-old retired cattleman, who spends the rest of his time being retired and doing the stuff that retired people do.

With striking blue eyes and a remarkably unweathered face, Tommy's advanced age isn't immediately apparent. Just the same, the silver locks tucked neatly beneath his ballcap make lobbying for a senior discount unnecessary. Then again, Tommy's accumulated enough points on his player's club card that his lunch at Calypso's Buffet in the Isle of Capri Casino is comped. Unlike the rest of the diners, who are seated together in clusters, Tommy is sitting by himself at a table for two. It turns out the other members of his group are up the hill at another casino. But Tommy's undergone a few surgical alterations to his ticker that make the notion of staying at the lower altitude of Black Hawk decidedly more appealing. Besides, he likes the food here — as well he should. The offerings at this buffet justify a trip to Black Hawk just to eat.

As Tommy gets up to help himself to some dessert, he notices another ballcap on the table next to him. "Is that a Yankees cap you've got there?" he asks.

Why, yes.

"Say," he continues, "would you be interested in an authentic picture of Babe Ruth and Gehrig on a ranch in Nebraska?"

Next thing you know, Tommy reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a green folder. Sure enough, inside the folder is a picture of the young Yankees posing with a few other guys, one of whom is holding a toddler: Tommy when he was two years old. Tommy's dad was apparently acquainted with the Babe through some ranch, and the print is from a negative that his dad gave him decades ago. He's asking $35 for it — down from $70, because folks are struggling these days and Tommy doesn't need the money, he insists.

"If I can tell you one story," he says, "I've got a hundred." And he proceeds to prove it by spinning yarn after yarn: about how he once caddied for the Babe, who would make him play the last hole; about how he ended up in Denver in the '50s, leaving Winnebago, Nebraska, for a lucrative job as a cattleman — a job he later quit when his boss tried to rush him while he was eating breakfast. Before he finished eating that breakfast, a guy from another outfit that happened to have an office in the same building had offered him another job, a better job, and Tommy went on to make a nice life for himself and his family in the Mile High City. Oh, and then there's the story about how when he retired and moved to Phoenix, he started his own tamale delivery company. And how one of his best sales reps was a gal one of his managers recruited from a street known for harboring ladies of the evening. And how Tommy and his family used to dine with the parents of a man who became a famously reclusive Denver billionaire. "He's a workaholic," he remembers the man's mother saying.

Tommy could go on for hours — and he probably would, if he didn't have to rush off to catch his bus. "Glad to know you," he says, extending his hand. "If you want to buy that picture of Babe and Gehrig, give me a call." — Dave Herrera


12:01 p.m.

It's high noon in Black Hawk, and Crook's Palace, the only non-casino restaurant in town and the oldest saloon in Colorado, according to a sign outside (although all claims in these gaming districts should be taken with a grain of salt, if not an entire saltshaker), has just two lunchtime diners: a couple of women, both hooked to oxygen tanks, talking loudly as they dip into cups of French onion soup. A few minutes later, two guys in fishing hats and cargo pants roll in and order Bud Lights.

The history of Crook's is considerably more colorful than its current incarnation. The heavy, dark-wood bar that anchors the place was originally part of a Missouri saloon, where Jesse James once bellied up to it. James Crook brought the bar in when he took over this spot in 1900, renaming the former Skylight Saloon after himself. He operated Crook's Palace for the next three decades, keeping it open through Prohibition by selling cigars and soda. After he died, in 1929, the joint went through a long cycle of struggles and ownership changes, passing through the hands of dozens of proprietors, few of whom managed to keep their bars and/or cafes open more than five years.

When gambling was legalized in Black Hawk, Crook's Palace became a casino, putting up an addition filled with machines and letting the whir of slots obliterate the convivial barroom ambience. But there was still a stool dedicated to miner Dow Blake, a regular at the bar (and the great-uncle of future mayor David Spellman). As bigger casinos opened up, though, the crowds left Crook's. And in the late 1990s, the now cash-flush town bought the structure, restoring the space, cleaning up the storied bar, polishing the hardwood floors and adding a pool table. For a while, it tried running its own restaurant 24/7, but that didn't work out. And in 2006, Black Hawk put the place up for lease as a turnkey property, offering it to any restaurateur who would preserve the general feeling of the space — and keep gambling out.

In 2008, it was snapped up by Mike and Matt Casarez, who reopened Crook's in its current incarnation. The brothers, both graduates of Johnson & Wales University, are originally from Pueblo; Matt had been chef de cuisine at Isle of Capri. They run a serious operation: no outlaws, no barroom scuffles, and Dow Blake's stool has disappeared. The biggest danger: spiking cholesterol. "See that menu?" asks the bartender. "You'll notice we don't serve dishes that have little hearts next to them."

The brothers' cooking shows deep culinary expertise, applied to such American classics as the Smokestack burger — a flat patty enriched with a little pork and topped with thick strips of house-cured kurobuta bacon, smoked cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and housemade barbecue sauce between two halves of a homemade bun.

The food's about three times better than it needs to be: Strike it rich. — Laura Shunk


2:15 p.m.

"The Ancient Ones Will Lead You On Great Adventures." That's the tagline on the Coyote Moon penny slot machine in Central City's Dostal Alley Brewpub and Casino, and the slogan is apt, because the founders of this gold-rush town continue to shape the lives of the people who live here. Central City has certainly seen more than its share of adventures over the past 151 years, from booms and busts to fires and fistfights, and while change comes in fits and spurts, history remains. In fact, one of the goals of Central City's most recent boom — casino gaming — was to preserve the history of its first one.

But things don't always work out as planned.

About a mile outside of the main business district, the new Prospectors Run housing development, where several of the upstart candidates for city council live, looms above the brick ruins of the Mack Brewery. Built in the late 1800s by businessman Jacob Mack, the brewery was one of six that provided beer to miners in Central City, Black Hawk and other nearby towns. While Central City had planned to restore the brewery building, declining casino revenues mean that won't happen anytime soon, if at all.

But another vestige of the brewery remains intact.

Growing like weeds on the hills and rock-retaining walls around town are wild hops that Buddy Schmalz believes were originally planted upwards of 130 years ago. "It's everywhere," says Schmalz, who grew up in Central City. "I think people grew it and sold it to Jacob Mack."

Standing below his Victorian house on High Street, Schmalz points out tangled masses of vines creeping along the hillsides, over fences and around signposts and electrical lines. "The county considers them a noxious weed, because you just can't get rid of them," he says. "You couldn't kill them to save your life."

Buddy's father, Bruce Schmalz, was the mayor of Central City when Colorado voters approved the measure that legalized gaming in Central City. (Buddy's brother-in-law, David Spellman, is the mayor of Black Hawk now.) In 1991, the Schmalz family opened a small casino in the space where they'd run a T-shirt and rock shop for many years. Six years later, Buddy added a pizza parlor and brewery, dedicating one of his first beers — a sweet, slightly bitter amber ale — to Central City's brewing history, naming it Jacob Mack and using wild hops to brew it.

Today, Dostal Alley continues to attract locals who prefer the family-owned atmosphere and the smaller number of slot machines. And the beer.

Although Buddy, who himself served as mayor for six years and is now a Gilpin County commissioner, does most of the brewing himself, he's hired Dave Thomas, who worked down the hill at Coors for more than thirty years, as his right-hand man.

Together, Buddy and Dave brew four regular beers and a couple of seasonals in their seven-barrel system, including a Belgian-style wit beer flavored with orange peel and coriander and a smoked porter. In 2008, Dostal Alley's Shaft House Stout won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

But it's the Jacob Mack that stands out, partly because the brewers have no idea what kind of hops they are using or how those hops will change the beer each year. This past August, Buddy and Dave hit on a particularly good patch of vines. "There were so many, we could have picked for days," says Dave, walking along the hillside where they harvested the hops. The plants are now mostly dormant for the winter, but when he crushes a huge hop cone in his hand, it releases its distinctive, beery aroma. He believes the plants are of the Cluster variety, because that's primarily what brewers used in this country until about thirty years ago. He plans to send a cutting to a friend who works in genetics at Oklahoma State University to find out for sure. "They have the largest cones I've ever seen on feral hops," Dave adds.

Buddy once considered trying to protect the hops vines around town, giving them some sort of historic designation. But politics being what they are in a small town, some people suggested that that might be a conflict of interest — considering that the mayor was also Central City's only brewer.

In the end, the vines didn't need the help. History — beer history, anyway — has preserved itself. — Jonathan Shikes


3 p.m.

After the fares are collected and a dozen riders take their seats, Bonnie Ward goes into her routine: "We're gonna go up about 3,000 feet, and there's an eighteen-mile stretch where I go though about 160 turns," she announces over the sound of what might be Kool & the Gang playing on the radio. "You might see some wildlife, but I can't guarantee that. That's why they call it wildlife.

"My name is Bonnie," she concludes. "Let's boogie."

It's roughly an hour from the corner of 15th and Glenarm to the casinos via Clear Creek Canyon, more than enough time for this motley crew of blue-collar commuters and tourists to settle in. Mae and Jim Valdez, a couple from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who are in town for a convention, chat with an older Mexican woman across from them. "It's too bad you're not going to see the mountains during winter," the woman says in Spanish. "When there's snow, they're white, white, white."

The Valdezes already know that: They lived in Colorado back in the '60s, long before gambling was legalized. Today they had to choose between casinos and the art museum. They went with Black Hawk, but Mae has some regrets about not making it to the Hamilton Building. "I was going to walk over there myself while Jim was at work," she reflects, "but there's so many homeless people. I thought, 'Well, maybe I'd better stick closer to the hotel.'"

Toward the front of the bus, Bonnie and a woman in a leather cowboy hat banter about somebody's recent divorce. The woman, Jenelle Callahan, is one of Bonnie's regulars. She's a dishwasher up in Black Hawk, and for the past three years, five days a week, she's been commuting to work by bus from her home near Broadway and Alameda. "It's subsidized," she says of the $20 round-trip bus fare. "I don't mind the trip. I can sleep, I can talk, I meet people. Can't do nothing but sit back and relax. It's relaxing going up here."

Bonnie has been making the trip about as long, back and forth, twelve hours a day, four days a week. During that time, she's seen plenty of repeat faces like Jenelle's. "Sure, I get a lot of regulars," she says. "A lot of them are employees, some of them are gamblers — some of whom come up here every day. I find that amazing."

Of all the bus-driving jobs she's had — she's worked for RTD and as a schoolbus driver — Bonnie says this one, with Coach America, is the best. "I don't deal with too many kids," she says. "I don't deal with too many drunks."

The toughest part of the job is in the winter, when the canyon road can get brutal, but even then, unless the road is closed completely (which doesn't happen often), she doesn't stop driving; she just puts chains on the bus. "Sure, there are days I wonder what I'm doing on the road," she admits. "Or what anyone is doing." Once her bus went into a slide and turned sideways on the road

But she's reluctant to talk about that. She'd rather talk about the positive parts of the job — about how, if you get in a jam in the canyon, "flagging down a bus is as good as flagging down a police officer"; your cell phone won't work there, but bus drivers have radios. Or about how the canyon road came to be, built up from the infrastructure of the narrow-gauge railroad that originally ran along Clear Creek. Or about how, even if this is a wildlife area, she still thinks it's unsafe not to have lights along the road. "How streetlights would bother the wildlife but a million headlights don't, I don't know," she says. She's so informed on the particulars of driving a bus along this route, it's hard to be sure if the 160 turns she mentioned are documented somewhere or if she just counted them herself.

Somewhere along those turns, the conversations die off and the radio falls silent. A few people sleep; some look out the window. Outside, the canyon slips past, illuminated in the strange, washed-out light of a mottled, watercolor sky that hasn't been able to decide all day whether or not it wants to be overcast, the sun straining through a paper-thin cloud with all the intensity of a brand-new dime. The light is fading when the bus pulls up to its last stop in Central City. For Bonnie, the trip back down the hill will be her last run of the day, but for the last stragglers getting off the bus — the working stiffs and the gamblers alike — the day is just beginning. — Jef Otte


5 p.m.

The "Medical Marijuana" signs on the front door make it clear there's no casino inside 125 Main Street in Central City. But still, would-be gamblers keep coming into Gaia's Gift.

Before it became a dispensary in March, one of three in town, the building was home to the Central City Visitors Center. Before that, it was home to Mayor Willie's Casino, one of many casinos that have come and gone since gambling was introduced here. And even though it has since been stripped down to its stone walls, remnants of that incarnation remain — including the ornate wood-and-brass cashier's booth that has found new life as the dispensary's office.

The people who come in looking for blinking lights and buzzing machines instead find a lounge decorated with thrift-store couches. The only buzzing comes from the Nevil's Haze and THC-infused Rice Krispie treats. Every now and then, Gaia's Gift is visited by a drunk fresh off a losing table who wants to buy some weed. Since you need a medical marijuana card to buy pot here, just as you do at any dispensary in the state, those drunks usually leave disappointed.

Other visitors treat the dispensary like another tourist attraction. "People just come in and want to see what it's all about," says owner Sean Kittel, who moved up to Central City last month. "Since we opened, I have had more pictures taken right out front of our building than anywhere else."

He's found himself offering an overview of our state's MMJ industry to some unlikely people: parents concerned that their kids back home might be using drugs; farmers from Kansas who want to see what a hemp plant looks like; curious octogenarians from Canada who want a break from the slot machines. Sean enjoys giving the educational talks, he says. That role comes with the territory in a small town. A town that got its start with the state's first gold rush, then gambled on gaming two decades ago, and now could make its pot...off pot. — William Breathes


6:45 p.m.

Dealer Hank has the hands of a magician and the spiel of a carnival barker. No sullen grunts, no tip-hustling fake show of sympathy for those tough breaks, just a steady patter about Little Debbie snack cakes and crazy eights and don't spend it all in one place — unless, of course, the place happens to be the Fortune Valley Casino.

Other blackjack dealers ask if you want to place an insurance bet when their upcard is an ace. Hank offers a commercial: "Insurance brought to you by Geico. One phone call could save you 15 percent or more."

When one player collects six dollars on a double-down and whoops it up as if she's broken the bank, Hank goes along with the gag. "Your play is too strong for my table, ma'am," he says. "Perhaps you'd like to check out our deli."

Not exactly Seinfeld material, but this isn't Caesars Palace. This is Central City, bub, home of the small-timer. You can wager from three dollars to a hundred dollars at Hank's table, but almost all of the bets are solidly in the three-dollar range. An occasional plunger, heedless of tomorrow, might sink five bucks into a hand. More often, though, Hank has to remind players drifting over from a much busier two-dollar-minimum table that they have to cough up an extra chip to get in his game.

"Thank you for your compliance," he coos.

Down the hill in Black Hawk, three-dollar tables are as scarce as vegan restaurants. Yet most players seem to stick close to the five- or ten-dollar minimum the house allows. There are no high rollers in Colorado's mountain casinos — no "whales," certainly, by Vegas standards, unless you count the large mammals waddling through the buffet lines.

Adding more table games last year and raising the limit to a hundred bucks hasn't had quite the impact the gaming industry expected. It's estimated that the move generated an additional $9.4 million in annual gambling tax revenue, less than a third of what had been predicted. (Of the increase, $6.1 million is slated to go to the state's community-college system under the terms of Amendment 50, which authorized the change in gaming operations and 24-hour play.) Roulette, the classic sucker game of French farces, has been a flop everywhere. Craps attracts a few knowledgeable players but requires some grasp of basic math — and thus is a dying art. And on a weeknight, the hottest blackjack tables tend to be the cheapest ones.

The bulk of the money still comes from the zombified slot players. Still, it's not hard to find someone like Bruce, a square-jawed bruiser in a T-shirt playing the hundred-dollar limit on most hands at a blackjack table at the Mardi Gras Casino. The stacks of green $25 chips in front of him rise and recede like the tide. He barks encouragement at the cards as they fly out of the shoe, as if he can alter their denomination by sheer will. He's up, he's down; regardless of the stakes, it's still a grind.

Some casinos have attempted to market the new limit to serious players by offering single-deck tables instead of capricious, uncountable four- or six-deck shoes. At the Lodge, where it's tough to shoehorn your way to a seat in the popular card pit, there's a double-deck with a $25 minimum that's not for boobs. Being able to vary your bet (as opposed to the monotonous old five-buck minimum/maximum) and track the action of a smaller deck shaves the house's edge considerably and should, in theory, bring in more players.

Alas, the tender-hearted casino operators don't seem terribly interested in the trade-off between fairer odds and more traffic; they continue to undercut the attractions of a higher limit. Many of the Black Hawk joints now pay only 6-5 on blackjack instead of 3-2. They've also junked the rule that says dealers must stand on a soft 17, triggering gripes from players who believe the rule favored them.

"Why you do that?" a disgruntled woman holding 16 asks a dealer at the Lady Luck who went from soft to hard 17.

The dealer seems baffled: Either way, she was still beat. He points to the rules on the felt. "Because I have to," he says.

"Since when?" the woman persists.

"Since last week."

Up the hill, Fortune Valley still pays 3-2 for blackjack. The action might be low, but it comes with free entertainment, courtesy of Hank. The play can be bizarre — someone splitting tens against an up-card eight or hitting on 15 when the dealer's showing a bust card — but you can see such atrocities at a $25 table, too.

In a high-stakes world, a low-stakes game has its pleasures. After you've been knocked around by the whims of chance, burned one too many times by a too-hot-to-handle cardslinger drawing five cards to 21 while you're standing pat on 20, it can be sheer luxury to shovel out only two or three white chips a hand while your luck is in traction.

You might not win. But you can lose a little more slowly. — Alan Prendergast


10:25 p.m.

She walks up to the blackjack table, tapping the current dealer on the shoulder, waiting for him to finish his existing deal. Then she takes his place.

This is the moment she often dislikes most about her job, since this is when regulars who've been playing at the table sometimes call her a "closer," "cleaner" or "house dealer," and shove off to some other dealer. It's not her fault; she can't help that the cards seem to work in her favor. "I sometimes get really streaky," she says. "Probabilities don't seem to work with me."

Then again, it doesn't hurt that she's not like the ladies who work in the "party pit" at one of the neighboring casinos, the ones who might look good in their low-cut black leather tops, but seem to struggle counting to 17. No, she's had a mind for the numbers and probabilities in the 312 cards now flowing through her hands since she was six years old and beat her older relatives at every game they played together. She used to play a lot of poker anywhere she could find a game, making a respectable living playing 4/8 poker with a half-kill. These days, she's still a player with enough of a rep that other casinos will comp her a room on weeknights — although she's always too busy at the tables to use it.

When the casinos began looking for dealers to fill their new 24-hour schedules last year, she signed up. With maximums increased, she figured there'd be a lot more chips on the tables — and some of those chips would be going to her as tips.

Between dispersing cards to the handful of players in front of her, she runs her long nails lightly over the soft felt of the table. Up above, security cameras track the movement, watching for signs that she could be up to no good. She's not allowed to transfer chips from one hand to the other, to scratch her ear without first flashing her palms, to even sneeze into her fist.

Most of the tables around her are empty — pretty standard for a weeknight graveyard shift. Still, she could get lucky; a lot of the pros come in on weeknights like this to avoid the tourists and amateurs who show up on weekends and botch the flow of the game by struggling over whether they should hit on a 14 against the dealer's five. Some of the hard-core regulars prefer a table all to themselves, and on quiet nights the house is happy to oblige, upping the minimum bet for the table to $25, $50, even $100 to keep the greenhorns away.

Word is there's a pro athlete at the casino tonight: one of the local superstars who's a regular here. She'd prefer he not come to her table, though. Like most big-time athletes, he's known for being stingy with tips. One time, after winning a couple thousand at craps, he threw the dealer a lousy nine bucks. It's far better to have a table full of casino waitresses and other dealers, since they know better than anybody that she pays her bills with what goes into the metal tip box at her side.

She hopes those boxes are full before she clocks out at dawn, that she gets to that sweet spot where her players are on such a roll she can feel the energy coming off the table. Better that than having to tell a player his account is overdrawn, being the one to deal a hand that means somebody's not going to pay his cable-TV bill that month.

In general, though, she's been surprised by how much she enjoys the job. She can see herself sticking with it, maybe eventually moving on to other casino towns in other states. It may not be as exciting as her days as a freewheeling poker player, but the secret to her success has always been being able to quit. "The biggest key to gambling is knowing when to get up from the table," she says. "If you play against me long enough, I will always win. You can't overcome the odds."

The players at her table quickly realize this stark truth. After her first few deals, they start to leave. By the time she's dealt herself five hands — and not busted on a single one — her table is empty. As usual, probabilities don't seem to be working with her.

So she stands there quietly, waiting for a new stranger to shuffle up and ask for some cards. — Joel Warner


1:15 a.m.

Mark sits at the tallest, most garish video poker game in the otherwise empty cluster of machines. To his right are a Styrofoam cup filled with coffee — he doesn't drink booze when he gambles — and a takeout container filled with burritos that he got for free and is saving for tomorrow's lunch. To his left is a pretty, middle-aged brunette in a purple button-down shirt worn by the employees of Fortune Valley.

"Hey, Snooks!" he shouts to her. His voice is loud and grating, startling in the nearly empty casino. The only other sounds are the whirs and whizzes of the cartoonish slot machines, the pop songs being played over the sound system, and the hum of a vacuum cleaner. "How often do I come here?"

The answer is often: once or twice a week since the day the first casinos opened in Central City. So often that the 51-year-old knows many of the Fortune Valley staffers by name, including this particular employee, whom he nicknamed "Snooki" because he thinks she looks like the big-haired, big-mouthed Jersey Shore star, though he's never actually seen the show.

Mark is a slim man with weathered skin and a gray mustache who tonight is wearing a white T-shirt tucked into high-waisted black track pants. He prefers to gamble on weeknights because there are "fewer idiots" at the casinos, he says. He usually arrives in Central City at about 8:30 p.m.; that way, he avoids the daytime crowd of blue-haired old ladies, who are just as annoying as the idiots. He always drives — "Do I look like a goddamn bus rider to you?" he asks — and he always takes the Central City Parkway.

"I was on it the second day it opened," he says.

That was in November 2004. By then, gambling had been legal for thirteen years. But after experiencing a boom in the early days, Central City was about to go bust. Almost everyone who wanted to gamble would drive up the canyon to Colorado Highway 119 and then stop off at the big casinos in Black Hawk instead of going the extra mile to the smaller spots in Central City.

Rather than fold, town leaders made a risky bet. They decided to build an eight-mile highway that would connect I-70 directly to Central City, circumventing Black Hawk.

The Central City Parkway was to be paid off by the local businesses and casinos, which by that point had dwindled to five. The biggest, with 745 slots and 118 hotel rooms, was Fortune Valley. Built in 1994 as a Western-themed casino named Harvey's Wagon Wheel, it largely bankrolled the town's four-lane, $38 million solution. "As Black Hawk expanded, it was evident that Central City needed a shot in the arm. It needed a way to control its own destiny," says Joe Behm, director of marketing for Fortune Valley. When the road opened, Behm and others predicted it would attract 6,000 to 8,000 daily trips — which, in turn, would bring more money and several new casinos to Central City.

Six years later, the Central City Parkway has yet to fulfill all of those dreams. The town's growth "has been slower than anticipated," Behm admits. A few casinos have opened and then closed — but a couple more, including the sizable Century Casino, opened and stayed open. Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment, which operates several big casinos in the Midwest, bought a 1.5-acre parcel of land in Central City several years ago. "When they're ready, this would be a good spot for them to invest," he says.

But it's not clear when, or if, that time will come. For that matter, Fortune Valley just changed hands — sold at auction in August for $10 million to a Michigan company called Luna Entertainment, which already owns a small casino in Black Hawk, the Red Dolly. Meanwhile, many of the 2,000 to 3,000 drivers who come over the Central City Parkway every day pass straight through town and head down the hill to glitzier Black Hawk.

Mark is sometimes among them. He splits his time between Fortune Valley and the swanky Ameristar, choosing his destination based on which casino's video-poker machines are treating him better. The son of a wealthy oil-and-gas businessman, Mark claims he makes more gambling than he does working, which he admits he doesn't do much of. "In the last thirty days, I've pulled a little over $14,000 out of this joint," he says.

But he's losing tonight. "Come on, you dog!" he shouts at the machine after whacking the plastic "Hold/Cancel" buttons beneath the glowing screen. The rest of the dozen or so remaining slot jockeys are quiet, their eyes glued to their screens, their feet propped up on the ledges of their machines. A lone cocktail waitress in a short black skirt circles with a full tray of drinks. Maintenance men amble up and down the stairs, looking bored.

At 2 a.m., Mark checks his watch and calculates his losses: $750. That's more than he likes to lose in a single night, but he knows he'll have a chance to win it back. Or at least break even. "If you break even, you're ahead," he says. He cashes out, grabs his room-temperature burritos and makes for the door. Thanks to the Parkway, it's less than thirty miles back to Denver.

And less than five hours to dawn.

— Melanie Asmar

Fortune Valley is the largest casino in Central City.
Anthony Camera